When Jason Lin had his first staff meeting after joining software company Centage as its CFO last May, he presented four bullet points. They represented the key tenets of his vision for how finance and accounting teams should position themselves as partners to the business.
At the same time, the bullet points were a nod to a reality that most finance departments face.
“Expectations for finance and accounting have grown,” says Lin. “But we’re still not often seen as revenue generators. We’re last in line for investment. I’ve found in my career that you have to keep that in mind and build out a team that leverages every single resource you have and operates very lean.”
Lin’s first principle involves cross-training team members so they can back up one another’s roles as needs arise.
At that initial meeting he told his team, “Starting today, don’t think of yourself as an accounts payable specialist or a billing specialist. We’re all finance business partners. If someone comes down here with a question, our response is never, ‘Our FP&A analyst is on PTO, come back next week.’ ”
Of course, not everyone on staff can be trained as an FP&A analyst. At Centage, which provides cloud-based budgeting, planning, and forecasting software aimed at small and midsize businesses, there is a lead “subject matter expert” for every finance and accounting discipline and role. The FP&A backup is the CFO himself.
“I’ve been a finance professional for 20 years, but if you cut me open I’m an FP&A guy,” says Lin, who previously held financial leadership positions at ZoomInfo, Monster Worldwide, IkaSystems, and TripAdvisor. He adds, “Everyone can’t cover everything, but I want folks to be able to wear multiple hats.”
“I’ve been a finance professional for 20 years, but if you cut me open I’m an FP&A guy.”
The cross-training is a very structured, ongoing process, he notes. The finance function maintains a matrix of employee names and the department’s tasks, and the number of people who can perform any particular task grows as team members learn new skills.
“I keep my management team on top of folks, because [the training] is a benefit to us and also, I believe, a benefit to the team members,” Lin says. “In one-on-ones with managers, they talk about what interests them and the next steps in their career growth.”
Another of Lin’s tenets involves embedding finance and accounting professionals in each company business and department, where they gain a full, “beyond-the-numbers” understanding of its operational initiatives and priorities.
“When I see this machine is really working, as a finance leader it brings me so much joy,” he says. “Like when I see our director of marketing walk past my desk and go straight to the analysts. Or an analyst might come to me, and while they understand where we’re at from an expense perspective, they make a case [for new spending] on behalf of their business partner as if their own success depended on that investment as well.
“The business feels that finance and accounting folks are standing right beside them,” Lin continues, “wanting them to meeting their goals and make their numbers.”
For example, maybe the marketing team hasn’t gotten the desired return on investment from a campaign and doesn’t have the analytical know-how to understand, as a finance business partner might, that “it’s not a linear investment and we actually have to spend more to see that return.”
Third, Lin staunchly values being prepared for the inevitable cost overruns that happen throughout a quarter and year.
“You need to have an ongoing list of risks and opportunities,” he says. “Maybe we have the cost of a software implementation forecast at $1 million, but based on history and who’s running the project we know we’ll overrun that. But we also know that a marketing campaign forecast for $500,000 might actually cost only half of that.”
The same principle applies to sales windfalls. If the company has an exceptional quarter and thus has more leeway to spend, being ready with a prioritized list of investment opportunities allows for quick action.
Fourth on his list of tenets is what Lin calls a “formalized investment process” for evaluating proposed expenditures that aren’t in Centage’s budget.
“There are always going to be incremental-to-budget requests that come up,” he says. “A formalized approval process makes the finance team’s life much easier. Otherwise it can be very much the Wild West, where people come to the CFO and say ‘we really need to spend on this,’ and the CFO says ‘talk to the CEO,’ and the CEO says, ‘I think that’s fine, but talk to the CFO, I need his signoff.’ You want to avoid that disarray.”